Many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have followed Israeli army evacuation orders and sought safety in designated areas only to find there is little space left in the densely populated enclave, a UN humanitarian team leader said on Monday.
Gemma Connell, deployed in Gaza for several weeks now, described what she called a “human chess board” in which thousands of people, displaced many times already, are on the run again and there is no guarantee a destination will be safe.
The United States, Israel’s staunchest ally in its war against Hamas, has for weeks pressured Israel to take further steps to minimize civilian harm by identifying safe areas and clearing humanitarian routes for people to escape.
“People were heading up south with mattresses and all of their belongings in vans and in trucks and in cars in order to try and find somewhere safe,” said Connell, who on Monday visited the Deir Al-Balah neighborhood in central Gaza.
“I’ve spoken to many people. There’s so little space left here in Rafah that people just don’t know where they will go and it really feels like people being moved around a human chessboard because there’s an evacuation order somewhere.
“People flee that area into another area. But they’re not safe there,” said Connell, team leader for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Asked for the army’s response, a spokesperson said the military has sought to evacuate civilians from areas of fighting but Hamas systematically attempts to prevent that effort. The army spokesperson said the Palestinian militant group uses civilians as human shields, an accusation the group denies.
‘NO SAFE PLACE IN GAZA’
Connell described the death of a 9-year-old boy named Ahmed in Al-Aqsa hospital in Deir Al-Balah, where many of the wounded in Israeli airstrikes overnight were brought and where she spent around 1-1/2 hours.
“He was not in an area under an evacuation order, he was in an area that was supposed to be safe. There is no safe place in Gaza,” she said, adding that new airstrikes took place when she was at the hospital and she witnessed wounded being brought in.
She shared the text of a notification from the Israeli military urging residents of at least half-a-dozen central Gazan neighborhoods to evacuate on Friday.
It says the Israel Defense Forces will soon be operating in their neighborhood and urges them to evacuate “temporarily and move to shelters” in Deir Al-Balah.
The army spokesperson told Reuters: “The IDF will act against Hamas wherever it operates, with full commitment to international law, while distinguishing between terrorists and civilians, and taking all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians.”
US officials have repeatedly said they expect Israel to scale down its operations to a more low-intensity phase of more targeted and surgical operations.
However, Israeli operations have intensified.
Christmas Eve proved to be one of the deadliest nights in the 11-week-old war between Israel and Hamas, as Palestinian health officials in Gaza said Israeli airstrikes in central and southern Gaza killed more than 100 Palestinians, bringing the death toll to nearly 20,700.
As Palestinians mourned their losses, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to keep up the fight against Hamas militants who in a cross-border attack on Oct. 7 killed 1,200 people and abducted 240, according to an Israeli count.